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Opinion: Online learning is overwhelming — and students are falling behind

Expectations need to adjust to this year’s unique circumstances
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REBECA MOYA/THE VARSITY
REBECA MOYA/THE VARSITY

Confronted with an entire year of online learning, U of T students have become concerned with the unpredictability of online courses. Students are now living in a virtual world that requires strict self-motivation and, oftentimes, that motivation seems impossible to produce. This has resulted in a culture of impossible student expectations with almost no support on how to get back on track if you don’t meet them.

According to U of T’s Getting Ready for Online web page, “online courses will take as much time and are as academically rigorous (or more rigorous) as a face-to-face course.” This implies that U of T’s goal amidst course changes has been to maintain course difficulty above all else.

The question on students’ minds then becomes, why does the transition to online learning require that online classes be more demanding than in-person ones?  

In U of T’s COVID-19 Academic Continuity Strategy: 2020–2021, U of T wrote that one of its central pillars for academic planning is to provide a manageable workload. However, this concern that the workload will become too strenuous is specifically geared toward professors and employees of the university — not students.

In fact, professors have incorporated a heavy workload into learning in an effort to engage students; however, this has become problematic. U of T’s new online “flexible course design” recommends increased engagement outside of the classroom. 

Extra course material could include group projects, student-led discussions, peer feedback activities, and more. The extra course involvement asks for supplemental, weekly completions that are graded as well. These excess tasks that professors are now using to grade students have started to become overwhelming. 

U of T Student Life offers tips on how to succeed in online learning. These tips include setting up a good workspace, building a routine, engaging in the content by asking questions and taking notes, reaching out to the community by talking with professors, creating study groups, seeking mentorship, and setting clear expectations by reaching out to your registrar and other supports.

Most of this advice is common knowledge and geared toward being a productive student in general. However, none of these ‘tips’ are specific to the struggles that students are facing with an online workload. 

Falling behind at U of T is simply not an option. The university demonstrates that it expects its students to stay on track and nothing less. As such, there is no guidance for when students do fall behind, only advice on how to avoid it. 

Students’ anxieties stemming from online learning also revolve around time management. U of T should not assume that online learning means more time. The Getting Ready for Online webpage tiptoes around the issue of why students could lack motivation, or how to recover from piles of overdue work. 

On the upside, the website does offer helplines and student support programs for when students become distressed. The website transitions from how to avoid overdue work to resources to seek when in need of help for mental health. 

Mental health helplines and programs are a necessity; however, there is no acknowledgement for other necessities, like how to get back on track with work. The webpage indicates that U of T does offer academic support, but again, it links back to U of T Student Life and Accessibility Services without addressing the central problem at hand. 

Students are doing their best during these trying times. Instead of claiming students have poor time management, there should be questions pertaining to whether the workload is too demanding and supports for when students aren’t able to meet these demands.

Multiple opinion pieces have highlighted the difficulties of online classes; it should be up to the professor to make changes and reduce stress for students. It has always been up to the student to meet impossible expectations, but this needs to change. 

U of T needs to modify its focus from blaming students to looking at how course requirements have shifted and if this shift is too much for students to bear. The lack of these modifications creates an inaccessible learning environment for students with mental illnesses or disabilities. Not everyone can keep up with the university’s ever-growing academic expectations, and not everyone should. 

Professors and administrators do not need to change the curriculum, but rather listen to students on how to improve online learning. Altering the course requirements of a midterm or responding to expectations that are overbearing could drastically shift the online learning experience.

Falling behind has become easier during the pandemic because of these flexible course designs. As such, if professors and administrators argue that these course designs are indeed flexible, they should be easy to modify to support student excellence. 

 

Natasha Lewis is a fifth-year criminology and English student at Victoria College.